Monday, March 16, 2015


Recently I had this visceral, almost unexplainable urge, to get away from a lot of things and reconnect with a distant past that I feel has almost disappeared. I flew to Milan to meet an 82 year old great uncle, who has been living there for over forty years. Walking out of the arrivals door I met I found kindly old man in a sports coat waiting for me. He was wearing a hat with the side perched lopsided over his ear, and a velvet scarf tied around his neck and tucked regally underneath his shirt - an amazing person who I was very fortunate to meet and sit down with. He was genuinely curious about my sudden decision to drop by and visit him, and I said that all I wanted was for him to tell me stories. It was a desire that was very human, almost childish, and there was something very comforting about acknowledging that. To me, it is fascinating to hear about things that happened before I existed, and to have a picture of that painted in my mind by the words of somebody who had actually been there.

I got to hear about my late grandmother, and about how hard her life was after she got married and had eight kids. They weren't poor, but times were hard often and she used to have to sow her children's underclothes and also their "Eid" clothes by hand, buying cloth from different places in the city. Apparently she was really good and people always wanted to know where she bought the clothes from. My great uncle was still a school boy during the Second World War, and his father, my great grandfather, used to have a coffee shop near the "Ma'arad" area - where the famous Damascus Expo would always take place. Their old house was behind where the Four Seasons Hotel currently is. The coffee shop was called "Ahwet al Ma'arad" - "قهوة المعرض". Apart from coffee and nargilehs my great-grandfather also used to sell Coca-Cola and sodas, and had a merry-go-round in front of the coffee shop for kids to pay and use. He was an eccentric who was married dozens of times, and left a string of wives from Istanbul to Cairo and also had a brilliant mind for business.

By the end of the Second World War, my great uncle told me, there was virtually no petrol to be had anywhere in Damascus. No buses or cars ran, and it was very difficult to get around. It was at that time that my great grandfather Nazmi decided to construct a cane cart that could seat about nine people and have it drawn by one horse. He used to charge people a franc for the journey from the Rabweh all the way to Victoria bridge, and eventually people in Damascus started to call it the "Igry Igry" cart, Egyptian colloquial for "Run, Run!". Other people imitated him, but they always had to use two horses instead of one, and that was because they hadn't used cane to build the cart. As a result, their carts were heavier, so they needed the extra horse to get the same people, and obviously that meant they didn't get the same profit. A good thing for him while it lasted.

He was also very blunt and had a plain-speaking manner that made me laugh. Apparently one time my father told him of his dream to be an electrician. My great grandfather calmly took a puff of his nargileh and asked my father, "What's the difference between a Watt and an Ampere?". My father replied that he didn't know, so he was told piss off. Apparently that ended his dream of being an electrical engineer.

There were other stories too, like when the British army arrived to Damascus with the Free French forces to push out the Vichy forces. There had been heavy fighting on the Yaafour road to Damascus, and my great uncle remembered seeing the bodies of Vichy French soldiers from a distance, slumped by the roadside with their rifles still in their arms. He also remembered how the insistence of the Syrian nationalists for independence after the Free French arrived led to greater tensions. His father had sensed there was going to be trouble and had taken him by motorcycle to Zahleh, Lebanon, for a few days. He turned out to be writing and while they were away the Free French had surrounded the Syrian Parliament building in Damascus, killing all the Parliamentary guard and taking the members of Parliament prisoner. He arrived back when it was over, and saw the bodies of the Syrian guards bloated and black in the sunlight, nobody had been able to move them till much later.

He went to school at the Tajhiz al Awal (First Preparatory), which is today that big school behind the Four Seasons hotel on your way to Victoria bridge. Apparently the French had built it as some kind of exhibition/amusement area during the presidency of Taj al Husseini, whom I'd never even heard of. He said that in those days, the students would try to organise protests and usually the French got wind of that and would surround the school all day until the protest fizzled and the students were usually allowed out to go home for the night. On some days the students would throw stones at the French from the school rooftop but he said the French never fired back at the students. Senegalese soldiers would be taken off to hospital with head wounds and were probably not very impressed with them. He remembers being chased by a French soldier after joining a protest that had gotten out of the school once, and had managed to dash through the trees in the park, nimbly missing the soldier. He told me he had been far more frightened about his father finding out about his joining a protest. That made me smile because I thought to myself that some things never change about Syrian parents. 

During the war the first commercial flights from Damascus to Beirut were run. A ticket cost about ten liras, which, back then, was about a seventh of a government employee's monthly wages. At six in the morning a taxi picked them up from their home and taken to the Mazzeh airport (which was still civilian back then) and flown to Beirut. They were then returned back to Damascus that very evening, and he thought that was the most amazing thing as they'd never done that before.

That evening I listened to my great uncle talking about the Damascus of his time, a Damascus of beyks and sheikhs and the old families. It wasn't perfect, but it sounded a lot better than what it is today. Back then there was a certain sense of pride in being Syrian and a sense of hope for the future. We drank more coffee and talked about other things, but I sat and looked at this gentle old man and it occurred to me how much I missed a Damascus and a Syria that I've never even seen. 

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